The Military Death Penalty: The President Must Approve

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It seems clear that, barring unforeseen factors, Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings, will be tried in the military court system. He is a military officer accused of killing and wounding other members of the military on a military base. If he is tried for capital murder, one of the most likely charges, he could also face the death penalty under the court martial system. But the military death penalty is a rarely used and circuitous process.

The current military death penalty system was established in an Executive Order by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. Since then, according to Dwight Sullivan, an Air Force appellate lawyer, there have been 15 members of the military sentenced to death. Of that group, 10 have seen their sentences set aside on appeal, three remain on direct appeal, and two are continuing to seek other judicial reviews.

Under the military system, the President of the United States must affirmatively approve of the execution. In July of 2008, President Bush approved the execution of an Army private, Ronald A. Gray, who had been convicted in connection with four murders and eight rapes in the late 1980s. Gray has since appealed his case to federal courts, delaying his execution again.

The last recorded U.S. military execution occurred on April 13, 1961, when John Arthur Bennett was hanged, after a conviction in the rape and attempted murder of an 11-year-old girl in Austria. According to the Los Angeles Times, it took him 16 minutes and five second to die. Under current rules in the Army and Navy, future executions will be carried out by lethal injection.